Astana’s Growing Expat Scene Struggles to Find its Place

ASTANA – The number of foreigners living and working in Astana long term has risen in recent years with the opening of new schools, businesses and embassies. However, it still takes some work to find and integrate with the expat community.

“Three years ago, Astana had somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 people, but I was always wondering where they were. The streets were empty; restaurants and shops as well,” said Firmin Van Haelst, 45, of the architecture and engineering company VK Astana, who has been here for three years. Van Haelst is originally from Belgium.

But, he said, things are beginning to change. Last year new places like Mojo and The Barley, an upscale restaurant and bar complex, started opening and new faces, Kazakh and foreign, started filling them, he said.

“It’s like the chicken and the egg. Either there is now a crowd that can afford to go to these kinds of places, so they pop up, or they pop up and then the people come – that, I’m not sure yet. But it’s really become more attractive, because it was, like I say, quite boring. The opposite side is that I could drive from my home to the office in 10 minutes before. Now it takes me 20 or 25. The number of cars is really exploding.”

Though long-term expats here are getting a sense that there are more foreign faces on the street, the actual number of foreigners living and working in the city seems to be a secret. And for all its growth, Astana still trails Almaty in the number of foreigners applying for permits to work: Almaty granted 9,315 such permits to foreigners in 2013 compared to Astana’s 6,275.

So the expat scene is, according to Pieter Van Wingerden, 32, “in its infancy, and unclear as to where it wants to go.” Van Wingerden, originally from the Netherlands, has been in Astana for three years working at Eagilik Public Fund, and he, along with the other expats who spoke with The Astana Times, has seen big changes in the size of the expat community in the past few years, if not necessarily in its makeup.

Nazarbayev University and Nazarbayev Intellectual School have attracted lots of new teachers, the North Caspian Oil Consortium and other companies related to energy have brought in their staff and embassies moving to Astana have brought many foreign families up from Almaty. This rise in expat numbers, however, has not necessarily created a more unified community of foreigners.

“The expat community is definitely divided into different groups,” Eagilik Public Fund Founder and Director Martha Peake, 56, said. “I find that the embassy people tend to hang out with embassy people. And then you have a whole other group of expats who are teachers… And I have yet to see a real, cohesive organisation or club or whatever, where they all go.”

InterNations and Fryday Astana are two organisations that host events in the capital to bring people from different cultures together, but they are some of the only bridges between the different factions of the expat community.

Of course, not all of Astana’s expats are interested in mingling with each other. If the advice newcomers to Kazakhstan get is to embrace the local community, expats here seem to be heeding it. “I’m not really sure where to find expats randomly, except maybe at Books and Coffee [Eagilik’s cafe]” said Theo Navarro, 22, of Malta. He’s been in Astana for a year. “Almost all of my friends are locals.” Most expats here describe their friend groups as largely mixed, if not almost entirely made up of locals. “I don’t move abroad to meet expatriates,” said Van Haelst.

That may be because the locals are perceived to be so friendly. “People are friendly here in general; not hostile to foreigners, that I’ve seen,” said Peake. Van Wingerden said, “If you have a bit of language, you quickly notice that people are very friendly and try to help you.”

However, there remains a perception among expats here that foreigners aren’t really involved in the local community. Perhaps this is because, as Navarro describes it, Astana is “a place to launch a career” and this often results in a trajectory that leads out of the country again. “It’s a shifting community, all the time,” said Van Wingerden. “Most [expats] are just here to work for a short time and then they disappear again to another placement… Most expats are really expats, in the way that they come in for two or three years, finish their placement and leave again.” Van Haelst agrees. “I think 90 percent of them are already expatriates somewhere else.”

Of course, there are those who think moving in and out too quickly is a mistake. “This is the beginning of a country. Opportunity-wise, you don’t have opportunities anywhere in the world that you have here. And I appreciate that,” says Taylan Karamanli, 45, who is originally from Turkey and has been here for two and a half years running his own small business. Food is good here, foreigners are treated with kindness and respect and the possibilities for the future are many, he said. Peake, at Eagilik, is also taking advantage of the business opportunities in growing Astana. She moved here from Shymkent to open her business because, she said, she “realised that it would be a great place to do it up here, where things are developing and more expats are coming in; that this would be a great community, a great place to try something like this. From what I’ve experienced, Kazakhstan is very pro-small business. … It was not difficult.”

Friendliness, food and opportunities are high on the list of the city’s positive points. Expats do, however, have some complaints. Driving and traffic are the source of a lot of disgruntlement among foreigners here. Karamanli, who said otherwise he liked living in Astana, is horrified by some of the accidents he’s seen. “The accidents you see here are like accidents you’d have on highways… How do you flip over a car in the middle of a city?”

And unlike other predictions for Astana’s future, the driving situation is only expected to get worse. “I think we’re going to have Almaty-style traffic jams in the next one to three years,” said Van Haelst.

Weather and isolation are two other issues that affect expat life here and are reasons why some expats think the number of foreigners is not likely to grow much more. “I don’t think that many more foreigners are going to come in,” said Van Haelst, citing weather and the long travel times to get to Europe or almost anywhere else as major problems for expats considering moving here.

“(More people would come) if they have more frequent flights – another obstacle: if you want to come here there aren’t many options to come here,” said Karamanli. He also thinks visa and immigration policy keep some would-be immigrants away, and with EXPO 2017 set to generate all kinds of new business, scaring away potential partners is the last thing Astana wants to do. “If I were in the administration, I would just open the doors. Already, you have nature that’s not friendly. So you have to be friendly with everybody else. Open the doors, welcome everybody.”

And of course, one of the main reason there aren’t many foreigners here is that not many people know anything about the place. “I think people come here expecting it to be a rough outpost, which it is not. So I would say expats would be pleasantly surprised by life in Kazakhstan. This is a very nice place to live,” Peake said.

For some, at least, the warm culture and the great business potential are enough to keep them here. “For me, there are opportunities everywhere. That’s why I’m struggling in plus 40, minus 40,” says Karamanli. In the end, it’s all in how you look at things, Peake said. “With anything, coming in with the right attitude will completely colour your experience – or colour it positively or negatively.”

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